There is a unavoidable smirk that comes on most people’s faces when asked about Michael Bay. Either they’re thinking about the ridiculously over the top use of explosions, the terrible dialogue, the really hot women who serve no other purpose than to raise the flagpoles of every guy in the theater, or the fact that every other frame is packed with teal and orange liners and slow-motion action sequences. There is a lot in Michael Bay cinema to detest, there is also a lot to be distracted by. Regardless of what is on the screen, you will automatically realize that what you’re watching is all you’re going to get; It’s a 2 dimensional, dazzling printing of the world that Michael Bay envisions. So it will come to anyone’s surprise that his latest feature Pain & Gain may be more than what meets the eye.
Pain & Gain is by no means a great movie (or even good for that matter), but it still may be Michael Bay’s best film in years. The one thing that will strike any viewer about Pain & Gain is how plainly it starts off, and unlike most of Bay’s films post-2000, how self-aware it is about what it conveys. From all the muscle-flexing, protein shake chugging and T&A action that blasts across the screen, we start to see a very interesting idea start to form. Masculinity is something that Hollywood entertainment cinema has always held on its highest pedestal. Even when it’s women in the lead roles, they’re always gutsy, well-built or good with weapons. Michael Bay manages to take masculinity and shove back into the face of the American people. There are plenty of guys who watch these action films (men between ages 18-35) who embody the idea of the typical aggressive male: likes to work out, likes to fuck, usually treats women as a slightly lesser species, and evaluates all of his success based upon money, power and the amount of women who want to be with him. Moreover, this is also directly related to what males in America tend to think is the general idea of “Americanism”.
There is no person who knows cinema who would ever allow Michael Bay to hold the title of “satirist” (his films are too flimsy and underdeveloped outside of the pyrotechnics to ever achieve such high status), but in the case of Pain & Gain he astonishingly starts to develop a sense of social critique which he knows to be associated with action cinema. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) spends a good portion of the film pontificating about how his idea of what success and “Americanism” is. Daniel goes on talking about living up to the fullest potential, being the best at what you do and making things happen through self-perseverance and hard work. Even more, he dedicates himself to help others to do that too. What could be more American than that? But in comes a short and scrawny Asian businessman (Ken Joeng playing himself) who spews out a bullshit philosophy through self-help conferences using hot women and his own private yacht as his ammo. Of course, the poor saps in the audience buy it hook, line and sinker.
For what happens next is the cinematic equivalent of close to 3 decades of the American male going from hard-working persevering individual to being a selfish, impatient moron who WANTS SUCCESS NOW! This is Michael Bay really knowing his audience. For all the chants of USA! USA! that frat boys do at college parties, their views of an American dream strike blunt when compared to the men of the past. Today’s America is run amok with men who crave the instant gratification that they are being fed. They take short-cuts (steroids in baseball), get angry and resentful when they don’t get what they want and their own insecurities force them into a superficial macho posturing that only serves as a bark with no bite. It’s a skin deep culture of America that populates Pain & Gain and strips its once good citizens into criminals and desperate fools.
Of course, all this idea churning which makes the first 20 minutes of Pain & Gain so good, gets drowned out with gunfire, sequences of girls in bikinis walking around waving their hair, a convoluted plotline, and a bunch of yelling and cursing that kind of defeats the purpose Bay wanted to set up in the first place. Nevertheless, the first 20 minutes still exist and they are there as a testament to what Michael Bay can do, if he really wants to.